Jacques clicked his heels and gave Tennyson a curt nod.
"Charmed," Tennyson said, in a decidedly un-charmed tone.
Jacques clapped his hands and told the police officer, "Take your partner outside and rouse him. Wait for me."
"Yes, sir," the bald cop said. He cast a glance at his gun on the floor, then looked at Paladin. He grabbed his unconscious partner and dragged him outside.
Jacques had changed in the few days since Paladin had last seen the mild-mannered bartender. He was acting like a big shot...and maybe he was. At the very least, he seemed to have the local police in his pocket. Or were they on loan from the Die Spinne group?
"These police are not smart," Jacques whispered, "but they are obedient." He scrutinized the stacked crates, and wordlessly moved his mouth as he counted. "One hundred twenty five, Monsieur. We had agreed to three hundred cases, non?"
"I have all three hundredin a safe place. You'll get the balance when I see the cash."
"I understand." Jacques flicked at his moustache in irritation, then gestured to the cases. "May I?"
"Knock yourself out."
Jacques pried open the lid of a crate and removed one of the squared bottles. He uncorked it and took a sip. "Excellent. We said fifteen francs a bottle?"
"We said twenty-five."
Jacques reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope. "So we did." He thumbed through the envelope's contents and pulled out a sheaf of blue- and red-embossed bills. "If you prefer I can convert this, for a slight additional fee, into gold."
"Gold suits me better."
"As you wish. I can meet you with"
"And as long as we're talking about my preferences, Jacques, I prefer to deal with the people in charge, too. See, I was thinking that maybe I could get you more than three hundred cases."
Jacques eyebrows shot up and a smile spread across his well-oiled suave features. "Indeed, that would be most"
"I was thinking three hundred mores cases," Paladin said, "...a week."
"Three hundred a week? Impossible."
Paladin stepped toward Jacques, his pistol casually aimed at his heart. "Don't get me wrong: I like you as my middleman, and that's not going to stop as long as things continue to run smoothly. But I won't risk my neck crossing the Texas border just to have someone on this end tell me they can't move my merchandise. I want to meet these Die Spinne people. Face to face."
Jacques' gaze darted to some distant point as he thought this over, probably figuring now much his cut would be, then his oily smile oozed back over his face. "But of course, Monsieur Blake. I had intended to this very thing tonight. You have a plane, yes?"
Paladin nodded at their Hoplites.
"I will have the men load it, then we can deliver the goods, in person."
"Perfect," Paladin replied.
Jacques whistled and the two cops re-entered the hangar. The one who Paladin had cold-cocked was rubbing his head; he cast a murderous glance in Paladin's direction. Jacques instructed them to load the crates.
As they put back the cases Paladin and Tennyson had just unloaded, Tennyson stepped close to Paladin and whispered, "You couldn't think of a less colloquial name for me than 'Tennessee?' And how did you know these police were crooked when you drew your gun on them?"
"I'll explain later, Tenny."
He didn't know if he could explain it, though. Those cops had gone after Tennysonreason enough to draw his .45but there was more to it. He was close to finding Flora and ending this business. Maybe close enough that Paladin wouldn't even let the police get in his way.
He didn't like the way this was going. He had stolenalbeit was from his pirate brotherbut it was still theft. He had leveraged his reputation, and that of Blake Aviation, to transport contraband. And he would he have shot, maybe killed, two men to get what he wanted.
Maybe it was more than Paladin's looks and name that lent themselves to playing the role of Matthew Blake.
When the Hoplites had been loaded, Jacques said to Paladin, "I will go with you." He nodded and smiled at Tennyson. "And Monsieur Tennessee can follow."
"Follow us where?" Paladin asked.
"I am afraid I must show you. You would not believe me otherwise." Jacques turned to his police escort. "That will be all for tonight, gentlemen."
The cops gave one last long look at Paladin, then left. Paladin hoped that was the last he saw of those two.
He, Jacques, and Tennyson then boarded their Hoplites and taxied onto the runway. Inside, the planes had seventy-five cases of liquor crammed into every available square inch. It took all five hundred feet of runway for the overloaded planes to get airborne.
"Head southeast," Jacques instructed.
"We're going to run out of land quick," Paladin remarked.
"Oui, I know," Jacques said. "Southeast, please."
Paladin keyed the radio microphone. "Follow me, Tenny."
"Roger." There was a moment of silence, then Tennyson added: "You realize that, to carry our cargo, I had to remove all the armor off the Hoplites? It will take only a single magnesium round to ignite the two hundred and seventy gallons of bourbon we are sitting on."